OPINION: The Rizzo Statue Isn’t Going Anywhere

When the former mayor’s likeness remains at its Municipal Services Building perch, his supporters will have the Black community to thank.

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Police guard the Frank Rizzo statue earlier this month. | Photo by Caroline Bartholomew

Thanks to a group of white dudes who decided to go to Charlottesville, Virginia, kill someone, and ruin tiki torches for the rest of us, we’re having a nationwide discussion about monuments.

The discussion of whom we honor, what we honor, and where memorials should go is long overdue — because, let’s face it, memorials are designed to teach as well as commemorate.

While we’re not quite on the level of the statues of the Confederates that seem to be littering the landscapes of the American South left and right, Philadelphia has gotten involved in this discussion because it has its share of problematic monuments.

Probably the most problematic is located at the top of the stairs of the Municipal Services building in the form of a statue of former Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo.

The statue was put on the MSB steps in 1998 and was sponsored by the Frank L. Rizzo Memorial Committee, a group of the former mayor’s friends, family and supporters. It was commissioned soon after he died from a heart attack in 1991 while running for what would have been his third term as mayor.

Last week, Mayor Jim Kenney announced that the Art Commission would be taking suggestions on whether the Rizzo statue should stay on the MSB steps. This was the result of a call from Councilwoman Helen Gym and POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild) to take it down.

The Rizzo family and the former mayor’s friends and supporters are willing to go to the mattresses to keep it where it is, however.

But if what I’m hearing on the streets is any indication, they’re not going to have to, because the Black community will do it for them.

I mean hey, America has always been able to count on the kindness and forgiveness of Black people. Why should this be any different?.

I’ll get into why in a moment.

When Gym suggested via Twitter that the statue be moved because of Rizzo’s well-documented history, she was speaking for a lot of people.

Back in the day, Rizzo was the person you saw when you looked up “police brutality” in the dictionary. A conversation with some of the city’s older residents brings up images of strip-searches on public streets, nightsticks upside people’s heads, and other behaviors that led to the federal Department of Justice keeping a tight eye on our boys in blue.

But Rizzo did have his partisans, and their reactions to demands to move the statue have ranged from a profanity-laden tirade from Rizzo’s grandson, Joe Mastronardo, in PhillyVoice to a sit-down between the Rizzo family and Mayor Kenney.

To keep activists from making good on a threat to tie a rope around it and drag it down, and to keep folks from spray-painting “Black Power” on it again like they did recently, the Philadelphia Police Department detail assigned to it will, at a cost to taxpayers, probably remain until the Art Commission makes a final decision on the statue’s fate.

But while there will probably be a protest march or two calling for the Rizzo statue to go to a private space, I predict with little fear of contradiction that the city’s Black community will ensure it remains at the MSB.

Let me qualify that: What I mean to say is that Blacks of a Certain Age will ensure that it stays.

One thing that I have always admired, and that America has always counted on, is the ability of Blacks to forgive any slight thrown our way. I remember how much praise was heaped on the families of the Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, when most of them forgave convicted shooter Dylann Roof.

But by the same token, it is this ability to forgive that has at times has made me angry as hell, and nowhere is that better illustrated than in the debate over the Rizzo statue.

After Gym suggested we give relocating our Rizzo monument some serious thought, I got on social media to check out the public mind among my friends. Most of them aren’t down with removing the statue.

Now how do I know this? Whenever someone says “We have more important things to worry about than [whatever it is I’ve brought up],” I know they’re against it. I had more than one person tell me that my focus should be on education, poverty, jobs, and crime instead.

And then there were the people whose parents integrated the union (pick a union, any union) because Rizzo threw them a bone.

Believe me: Education, poverty, and jobs are really important issues to me. I also understand that with some unions in this town, it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for a person of color to get a membership card.

And I also understand that humans are a combination of good and bad.

But your good union job should never have been allowed to be used as a license to beat the crap out of your family, friends, and neighbors in the name of law and order.

Nor does it matter that Frank Rizzo helped you as an individual when your neighbors were being cracked in the head.

And before you bring up the African American Museum or Rizzo integrating the Police Department, don’t. Those things don’t outweigh what he did to the community as a whole enough to justify a statue that the people he victimized have to pass by on the way to pay their water bills.

But that’s just me. I gave up turning the other cheek a while ago.

Denise Clay has been a journalist for more than 25 years, covering politics, education, and everything in between. Her work regularly appears in the Philadelphia Sunday Sun and the Philadelphia Public Record, and has also appeared on the BBC, XO Jane, and Time.com.